As a Jew, I never imagined feeling compelled to highlight the fact of my ethnicity in political commentary until recently.
As the grandson of Holocaust survivors and as a Canadian proud of the civility of this culture, I never imagined that I would have to take the time to explain to well-meaning political actors why this It’s a bad idea to give fringe racists all the attention they need, and then some.
And as a media producer, I know I have to nuance these fairly mundane liberal-democratic views with personal revelations about my cultural background in order to help protect myself from the partisan vitriol online that seems to be throwing more and more ‘political opponents of certain ethnic groups like my own as more likely than others to be racist, oppressive and other bad things.
Even Michael Geist, a prominent and well-respected professor of Jewish law, was the subject of fierce vilification from self-proclaimed anti-racists when he spoke out against anti-Semitism. It was actually a Liberal MP who suggested that Geist was racist this week for asking basic questions about the Canadian Heritage anti-racism training scandal and how long the government kept it a secret (it’s was about a month, at least).
“Blinded by the hatred of Pablo (Rodriguez, Minister of Heritage)? Is it because the minister responsible looks like this,” St. Catherines MP Chris Bittle angrily tweeted, punctuated by an emoji pointing down at the image of another minister, the Diversity Minister Ahmed Hussen (he had approved the disturbing anti-Israeli conferences on “anti-racism” deployed in the ministry of Rodriguez, object of the controversy). Bittle’s tweetstorm, for which he apologized and attributed to “a moment of anger”, was itself an example of misinformation aimed at Geist. It was only Bittle who (presumably) questioned Minister Hussen’s skin color in his performative denunciation of a Jewish professor commenting on issues of concern to Jewish Canadians.
What could drive politicians of all stripes, centrist-leaning ruling liberals in particular, to signal perceived virtue with such zeal that the signal itself seems bigoted? If Bittle had paid more attention to fellow Liberal Anthony Housefather on Thursday, he might have had a clue.
In a editorial for iPolicy published the same day, Housefather highlighted the work done by a Canada-US Interparliamentary Task Force on Online Antisemitism, “tracking antisemitic narratives across a wide range of conspiracy theories, disinformation and extremism and they are deeply troubling,” he explained.
“Let’s go through a few examples,” Housefather continued, taking the time to denounce the Qs, Zs, and various online phenomena related to anti-Semitism. Due to the exponential proliferation of hate online, he concluded, “the task force has made it clear that the era of platform self-regulation has failed miserably. The notion of social media as a public square where discourse is counterbalanced by counter-discourse does not reflect the algorithmically amplified threats facing societies today.
The solution? Predictably, censorship: to “force social media companies to take meaningful action against online harm.”
Housefather’s calls for algorithmic transparency make some sense and reflect long-standing demands by prominent American critics of Big Tech to be upfront about who enjoys disproportionate online virality and who gets “shadowbanned.” into oblivion. But as his colleagues’ confusion over what constitutes free speech demonstrates, a current government cannot be the responsible arbiter of what is or is not acceptable speech because of a conflict of obvious and global interests.
The failure of “self-regulation” described by Housefather was never attempted. No Canadian MP has proposed a workable model of social media self-regulation to tackle issues like online hate and misinformation. On the contrary, acting on partisan and ideological impulses, both Liberals and Conservatives have deliberately ignored the immensely successful and underappreciated model of the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, introduced during the latest social panic caused by new media in beginning of the 90s (this is mainly a indisputable regulatory framework for live television and radio run by a coalition of broadcasters and based on the Charter of Rights and Freedomsand provides a good starting point for discussions on social media regulation).
Proponents want control of the internet. They don’t want academics or other independent experts intervening in speech issues, because the resulting legislation will inevitably limit their ability to smear or censor their online opponents, depending on their inclinations. The danger of government-regulated media was exactly the kind of warning that Geist has been presenting himself to the CRTC over the past few months, because he was probably the most vocal and prolific criticism of government attempts to create an internet censorship apparatus. Fascinating then to see Geist targeted by baseless and borderline sectarian slanders.
When a supposedly liberal government cannot tolerate polite criticism from an uncontroversial academic, we need not look far for examples of how government-regulated social media would be corrosive to democracy.
When Housefather calls for algorithmic transparency, we should ask ourselves, for whom?
Almost anyone can take advantage of a high volume account to proliferate any post on Twitter or Facebook. There is no evidence to suggest that the networks give special privileges to supremacist groups, as Housefather suggests. When organizations like the Government of Canada, the Liberal Party of Canada, or the Conservative Party of Canada pour public funds into social media ads, they are also participating in a form of “manipulation” of algorithms, elevating their messages to above competing content. Verified accounts (blue checks), including all MPs, are also algorithmically boosted as they are deemed to be of public interest. Politicians and political parties are already among the most privileged entities on the Internet.
Social media algorithms don’t care about user opinions, only that they hold as many of them as possible and in the most polarizing tone possible; ideally in coordination with other high volume accounts to power what the user is hoping for orient oneself. Whether the point of view is virtuous or sectarian, as long as it is polarizing, the algorithms produce the desired effect.
It is important to recognize that while most Canadians are generally tolerant people, then it is safe to assume that most interactions with racists on Canadian social media are in the service of anti-racism. But in practice, anti-racist denunciations don’t work as intended since hateful views are technically promoted with every share, regardless of the commenter’s framing.
There are a number of classically liberal arguments one could make against censoring swear words, bad people, or hateful symbols like the swastika; I am certainly not indifferent to a symbol that was used to subjugate my grandparents, transforming them from successful entrepreneurs into traumatized refugees, forced to flee to Siberia to stay alive.
What I want for the swastika is for it to disappear, for it not to appear in my feed every two hours, and the best way to get closer to this utopian goal is not to ” ban,” even if such a ban were feasible, nor to ritually denounce it at every opportunity, but, unless a potentially violent crime is committed, to ignore it and the purveyors of online bigotry as much as possible.
The only necessary argument against government censorship online is that it doesn’t work, certainly not when it’s crafted by politicians with illiberal, even bigoted censorship reflexes themselves.
As counterintuitive as it may seem and as suboptimal as it may be for politicians and partisan influencers seeking validation, the most effective way to defeat racists on the internet is to pretend they don’t exist. .
As the federal government continues to fiddle with its makeshift solution to internet problems, its ministers need to be reminded that there is a fine line between denunciation and the tacit promotion of hate online, and it is almost certain that Canadian politicians who signal virtue have done more of the former than the latter.